What is language for a people? The most obvious answer is that it is a means of communication. But what if we look deeper and examine other properties of language rather than communication alone?

Beginning from the time when languages were first devised by people, they have been a vital part of any culture. To speak your native language means to show where you come from, to demonstrate your national identity, to show where you belong. Before writing and printing came into existence, information of different kind was transmitted orally by means of spoken language. When written and, later, printed media appeared, it became possible to document events or tales and thus languages that people spoke.

However, there are times when a people cannot speak their own language and have to adopt a new one. Reasons and ways of doing so vary greatly, but one fact remains certain: if one wishes to deprive a people of their national identity and assimilate them with a dominant culture, they should begin by banning them from speaking their language. The rest of the assimilation process will follow quickly. J. R. R. Tolkien was well aware of such bans and their consequences, and he introduced a similar situation in The Silmarillion.

By the time the Noldor returned to Middle-earth from Aman, the Sindarin culture had become prominent in the region. The Sindar were a very numerous people and Sindarin was spoken by a large number of Elves in Middle-earth. The exilic Noldor were new to that established culture. They spoke a different language — Quenya, also called the High-elven tongue. For a time the Noldor were free to speak their own language, and they also learnt Sindarin quickly and willingly. Their mixing with the Sindar left a distinct mark on Quenya: several loanwords entered the language for those notions that the Noldor had no names for in Aman. But that friendly linguistic co-existence was soon to change.

On learning that the Noldor were guilty of Kinslaying at Alqualondë, Elu Thingol, who originally was of the Teleri and kin to the Elves of Alqualondë, forbade the exiled Noldor to speak their language in Beleriand:

Never again in my ears shall be heard the tongue of those who slew my kin in Alqualondë! Nor in all my realm shall it be openly spoken, while my power endures. All the Sindar shall hear my command that they shall neither speak with the tongue of the Noldor nor answer to it. And all such as use it shall be held slayers of kin and betrayers of kin unrepentant.
(Silmarillion, p. 149)

Thingol’s ban worked in several ways. First, it was a direct attack on the Noldorin identity and, thus, a severe blow for it: the Noldor grew up learning and speaking Quenya, it was an integral part of their lives and culture. Noldor’s loremasters had worked hard at devising the language, improving it, and with the ban its free usage as well as further development were checked in the wider world: following Thingol’s law Quenya was no longer the language of daily converse for the Elves in Middle-earth and was substituted by Sindarin.

Linguistically the Noldor had to assimilate with the Sindar, thus losing a big part of their identity: Quenya is closely associated with the Eldar from the West, with their lore, wisdom, beauty. Their language is the reflection of the Eldar in its very core. The euphony of Quenya was achieved through a long process of hard work, modifications and changes. The Noldor were great lovers of words, so they worked incessantly at creating the most fitting words for various notions. Some words were borrowed from Valarin (though with great changes to sound more pleasing for Elvish ears), but the Valar encouraged the Elves to create their own words in their beautiful tongue. Quenya was the quintessence of the Noldor’s creativity, their love for language and their linguistic talent.

The second aspect of Thingol’s law was that the Sindar did not have a chance to learn more about the Noldorin culture. They did have an introduction to Quenya through communication with the Noldor right after their arrival and before Thingol’s ban, but the Sindar were slow to master Quenya and they did not get enough time to make a better acquaintance with the language. Any language contains vast layers of information about how a people lives, what they value, what they find important and what not. The whole world outlook of a people, their history and philosophy are engraved into a language. All of these became taboo for the Sindar.

However, there was a loophole for the Noldor in Thingol’s ban: he forbade the open use of Quenya. The Noldor were great loremasters of tongues, so they realised full well the possible consequences of this law: Quenya could simply become extinct in Middle-earth, slip into oblivion, causing the utter erasure of the Noldor’s identity and their total assimilation with the Sindar.

Prolific British linguist David Crystal singles out three stages that languages go through on their way to extinction (1). The first step is pressure on a people not to speak their language, coming from different sources and for different reasons. In case of the Noldor the pressure was exercised from the top by King Thingol. The second step is bilingualism that emerges as speakers begin to master a new language. The Noldor reached this stage rather quickly as they learnt Sindarin swiftly and even before Thingol enforced his ban. The third stage in Crystal’s classification results from the newly acquired bilingualism: after people have mastered a new language, they begin to use their old one less and less. Younger generations do not always learn or even hear an old language spoken in their households, neither do they converse in it. Some families go on speaking an old language among themselves, but it soon turns into a family dialect. In our world this leads to the death of a language.

The Noldor loved and valued Quenya too much to let it disappear. Thus they preserved the language which was dear to them in usage among themselves:

…the High Speech of the West was spoken only by the lords of the Noldor among themselves. Yet that speech lived ever as a language of lore, wherever any of that people dwelt.
(Silmarillion, p. 150)

Quenya became the language of lore, poetry and solemn, ceremonial occasions. It froze as the language of a relatively small group of Elves in the state it was in at that point and was unlikely to develop after Thingol’s ban. The Noldor were not ready to fully blend with the Sindarin culture, so to avoid the extinction of their language in Middle-earth, the lords of the Noldor used it among themselves. Preserving, or rather conserving, Quenya among themselves, the Noldor did not lose touch with their roots and kept a considerable layer of their culture alive to pass on to younger generations of Elves in Middle-earth.

It is the written documents that allowed the Exilic Noldor to pass Quenya to their children born in Middle-earth. However, the language was not inherited but learnt in childhood. For example, Pengolodh was born in Nevrast and was bilingual: he knew both Quenya and Sindarin. Quenya was also the speech of daily converse for Eärendil in Gondolin, as after founding the Hidden Kingdom Turgon re-established Quenya as the language of everyday use. The tongue was not unknown to some of the Edain, though they, too, used it mostly as the language of lore and held daily converse in Sindarin.

The Noldor did everything they could to preserve their mother tongue Quenya. Once a language is no longer spoken by people, it can die. If there are no written sources in an endangered language, it can disappear without a trace. In our world languages die with people who speak them or when a people has to fully assimilate with a more dominant culture. Language preservation is a difficult endeavour, and in order to keep an endangered language alive, a people speaking it must be willing and ready to preserve it. The Noldor were great linguists, and they realised the consequences of Thingol’s ban. Thus they did everything to preserve their own language and to keep it alive in Middle-earth.


(1) David Crystal – How Language Works.

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
  2. David Crystal – How Language Works; Penguin Books; 2007.

Featured image: pixabay.com

15 thoughts on ““Never again in my ears shall be heard the tongue of those who slew my kin in Alqualondë!”

  1. What a wonderful reflection on the histories of people and their languages. As I read it I began to think about the story of the islands on which I live and their many languages. It is one of the more shameful elements of that story that there was a time when an effort was made to suppress entirely all languages apart from English. I am glad that this effort failed and when I was staying in Wales recently, the land of my wife’s father, I sat at a table in a cafe and at the table next to us the entire conversation was being conducted in Welsh. I know that Tolkien loved the Welsh language and had he been present I am sure that he would have delighted in it. Was he thinking of the history of English and Welsh in his story of the suppress of language?
    On Thingol’s ban it seems to me that it was a deep flaw in his character that he was too swift to make judgements and gave too little room for penitence and a change of life. But then that was true for Fëanor as well.

    1. Thank you!
      I’m sure Tolkien was well aware of how languages could be suppressed and how peoples could be made to assimilate with other cultures. As your example shows, he might have been drawing on his personal experience and knowledge.
      Thinking of such assimilations, it just goes to show how powerful language is. It can be put to good use or turned into a weapon.

  2. Wikipedia tells us that during the disintegration of Yugoslavia, “the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a Welsh regiment serving in Bosnia, used Welsh for emergency communications that needed to be secure.” Ciphers can be broken, but nobody can figure out Welsh. I think that story would have amused JRRT. There might have been a secret history of the War of Wrath, in which the Noldor redeem themselves by similarly carrying messages that none of the servants of Morgoth would be able to intercept because they were written in Quenya.

    1. That’s a fascinating fact! I agree — Tolkien would have loved it! And I certainly love your idea about those notes. Tengwar would have been an impossible nut to crack for Morgoth’s servants 😀

  3. I understand that the people of Finland retained their language by reciting the Kalevala after they were conquered. ( I think by Russians.) That’s why the Finnish language survived.

  4. I’m loving your posts about language.
    I know what languages die every day on our earth, which makes me sad. But then languages are like cultures, they are born, they live and in the end they die.
    I live in a part of Italy were dialect is still spoken everyday, though it is in danger, since younger generations use it less often. But I do hope it will endure for a long time still.

    1. I love writing them and I’m glad you’re enjoying them, too! There are some more ideas I’m currently developing into proper essays, so watch out for more linguistic reflections.
      That’s fascinating! Tell me more about this dialect, please! Is anything done to preserve it? Are people looking after it or are they encouraged to speak a general version of Italian?

      1. It’s quite a complex matter. Up to a couple of generations ago, people mostly spoke dialect over Italian. My mum spoke dialect as first language and most of my aunts and uncles on my mum’s side, including a few of my cousins still do.
        But many families, especialy in the cities, incourage their children not to speak dialect, because is considered backwards (which is really stupid, in my opinion).
        On a general social level, instead, the preservation of dialects is very felt. Here in Italy, we have laws defending linguistic minorities (mostly aimed at the pouches of population who speak actual languages like for example ladino, or sardo, but they are applied to dialects sometimes). Cultural circles and associations often do activities to encourage the use of dialect. In my city (Verona) for example, there are many associations of poets that only write poetry in dialect.

      2. That’s fascinating! Thank you for such a detailed reply!
        I totally agree with you that labelling dialects as backward is a stupid thing to do. For me dialects are the linguistic diversity and beauty inside one country. They are the reflection of the identity of various places around a country, the keepers of cultural heritage of smaller communities.
        It’s very reassuring to hear that the use of dialects is encouraged at a serious level in your country. They must be kept alive. And how intelligible is the dialect in Verona to standard Italian? Are the differences very big?

      3. Well, I suppose it all depends on how stricktly you speak it. Generally speaking, if a dialect is spoken stricktly, it is unintelligible to anyeone who doesn’t speak it. One of my aunts speaks dialect in such a way and sometimes even I am not sure what she says.
        But just to explain, the province of Verona borders on one side of the Lake Garda. The province of Brescia borders on the other side of the lake. If one person from Bresica spoke her dialect with a person from Verona and the person from Verona spoke back in her own dialect, they wouldn’t understand each other. And if a third person who only speaks Italian listened in, she wouldn’t understnad a thing on either sides.

  5. Olga, I have so enjoyed reading your essays. I have only just found them. On this essay I have a question that relates to the effect of the eternal life of the elves and the effect of a ban on a language. Being immortal would surely mean that this language ban would have a different effect on elves than it would on humans don’t you think? I have contemplated the effect immortality would have on a flesh and blood being quite a lot and would be very interested to hear an essay from you on the topic. After all, An elf, no matter how old in years, is in some ways, always just beginning it’s life. The sundering of pathways that the “death” of an elf from middle earth would bring must have been as difficult in some ways as the real death of a child was to humans. How then did they live an eternal life with the grief? Of course many couldn’t and so returned to the West etc. However as I say, I think that your contribution on this topic of the fundamental difference that immortality bestowed upon the Elves as compared to Men might be very interesting.

    1. Thank you so much! Welcome to Middle-earth Reflections, and I’m really glad to hear you’ve been enjoying browsing through this collection of reflections!
      That’s a very interesting question. I’ve often contemplated it: it seems to me that over the course of the ages the Elves kept on living with the ever increasing burden of memories weighing them down in one way or another. That’s, in my opinion, one of the reasons they preferred their lives of old to the future and, even, to the present, like recreating the past times in Lorien and Rivendell.
      It would be great to explore this issue in details. Thank you for the suggestion! I’ll look into it as soon as I can.

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